Friday, September 28, 2012

Excellence versus equality

G and I were discussing a book a few days ago which surveyed debates in the 1950s and 1960s about the purpose and role of universities. One prominent view was that the university should be a center of excellence. But this sat uneasily with the egalitarian drift of society. So others argued that the university should somehow uplift surrounding communities, even if it meant open admissions and less attention to academic standards.

I was immediately interested in this, because excellence is largely a translation of the Greek word arĂȘte. So this links directly to the idea of virtue ethics which I've talked so much about.

It is a profound problem. How do you reconcile equality and excellence? I think there have been two main problems with this debate.

The corruption of excellence

First, excellence has often been corrupted, and that has made us deeply suspicious of the concept. Nobility frequently been anything but noble. In the wake of the First World War, the legitimacy of many of the traditional virtues (and the social classes which justified themselves in relation to them) collapsed. The senseless carnage of the trenches in the end undermined a whole way of life, of deference and tradition and hierarchy.

The original definition of aristocracy was "rule by the best". Instead, the European aristocracy, which centuries before grew from its claim to military excellence and skill, had turned into a entitled, overprivileged and often stupid bastion of unearned wealth. In the trenches, lions turned out to be led by donkeys.

We saw last week that the same applied elsewhere. The Chinese scholar-officials turned inward and rigid.

The Bloomsbury Generation saw "eminent Victorians" as hidebound and stuffy and hypocritical. Western society turned more egalitarian. The Second World War and Cold War were fought for democracy, versus forms of totalitarianism. There was another leap in egailtarian consciousness in the sixties, which ramified into the new social movements like feminism and gay rights.

Curiously, a new university-educated meritocratic elite gradually rose over the same period. A brand-name degree still had legitimacy as a marker of excellence, at least in the job market. So did achievements like winning an Olympic gold medal.

But on the whole, there is now no consensus on what excellence is any more. Indeed, it isn't part of the conversation in the liberal tradition, which, as we've often discussed, focuses on autonomy and impartial rules.

The life cycle of organizations

Much of the problem arises because Excellence does not last. G and I often discussed how workplaces have a tendency to turn rancid over time. Organizations have a life cycle. They start off creative and fresh, and a little crazy. They then stabilize, get a bit of adult supervision, and if they are lucky, they succeed and grow. But over time bureaucracy and rigidity also grow, strangling the culture. Good people get frustrated and leave. Time servers and assholes remain. The vitality ebbs away. The organization cannot adapt or change. And eventually it dies.

The number of organizations that survive even fifty years is remarkably small.

The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading US companies has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today, according to Professor Richard Foster from Yale University.

In fact, the mystery is how some organizations survive for much longer. Institutions like the Catholic Church have often faced crises and reform movements and internal rot.

So what does this mean? Excellence is always in trouble. It is not self-sustaining. It is always beset by hypocrisy and corruption and rigidity. It is more like evolutionary fitness - literally so on the original Aristotelian definiton, which sees it as fitness for a particular purpose. Few species last any length of time either.

It can also be very hard to discern excellence in many fields. Who has a brilliant business idea or leadership skills? Hundreds of startups fail for every Google or Apple that succeeds. Initial excellence has a tendency to turn into monopoly (such as Microsoft's efforts in the 1990s). Initial political change has a tendency to turn into predation and an exclusionary parasitic elite.

But that does not mean some conception of excellence is valueless. It just means it has to be open to challenge and discussion. It needs checks and balances and renewal. It needs some way to get rid of the rot and the timeservers.

By happy accident, insofar as our economy works, it is because it has found ways to do this, at least for a conception of excellence as a combination of profitability and political preferment. It does not do so for the original Greek ideal of eudaimonia, or flourishing. And that is the basic problem with the economic system.

Maybe it is like a different version of Newton's First Law. That states, of course, that an object continues in its current state of motion unless acted on by a resultant exterior force. Instead, excellence tends to steadily decline unless acted upon by a positive external force.

Actually, that sounds more like the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy is always increasing. Life is the process which resists entropy, by increasing order and harmony in some localized spots. Excellence is much the same, a process that resists the deterioration of everything into a featureless soup of atoms in empty space.

Equality and dignity

That brings us to the second problem, equality. The debates here are old and familiar, especially the distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. The right prefers the first, the left inclines to the second.

Instead, I think our basic problem with equality is a tendency for the idea of equality of dignity - a highly important idea - to seep out of bounds into much larger demands for equality of respect. And that is incompatible with any idea of excellence. It isn't primarily a difference of economic outcomes that matters now, so much as status outcomes.

People deserve a certain basic dignity and respect simply as a human being - an idea which took the world a long time to arrive at. But should that extend to equal dignity and respect, regardless of what they do?

Take the phrase "second class citizen". It is used as a debate-killer, an automatic wrong. So people argue released felons should not be treated as second-class citizens. Amnestied illegal aliens should not be treated as second-class citizens.

The problem is this strips away any other possibiliies for society apart from power and money and celebrity. Yes, it is a noble idea to give everybody an aura of abstract equality and dignity, regardless of actual reality. The serial killer does have in a sense the same abstracty humanity as the cancer researcher or the startup pioneer. But it is also a sort of religious belief that has sucked the life out of dignity and excellence as well. Should we not say that in some senses the cancer researcher at her workbench is better than the serial killer in his prison cell? That will make many people uneasy. But it may be a necessary unease.

The problem is we have become so distrustful of any claim to merit which would justify claims to excellence. That is, perhaps, a legacy of the Cold War arguments for democracy, the fanfare for the common man. Democracy tends to erode the legitimacy of any other claims. We saw that "democracy" was ironically seen as the worst political system for most of recorded history, until the French Revolution. As Mitt Romney may discover, few people wil fight for economic liberty. But they will fight for equal dignity.

The great value of democracy, at least when it is embedded in the culture of a society, is that it has a tendency to resist the corruption of elites. Status distinctions tend to entrench a parastic layer above society. But equal dignity is often so patently unrealistic in practice it is also a difficult basis for legitimacy. Democracy can suffer from the corruption of the electorate.

So here is the difficulty. Claims for automatic equality undermine virtue. Some form of excellence - virtue - is necessary for societies to flourish. Too much equality at the expense of excellence produces, ultimately, the poltiical gridlock, overloaded fiscal burdens, bloated pension exposures and the financial crises we see around us.

This leads to the older discussion about the cultural contradictions of capitalism, as Daniel Bell put it, or the related ideas that the Protestant or bourgeois Ethic, for example, was necessary to the growth of capitalism. That's a topic for another post.

In essence, though, without some kind of active debate about virtue or excellence, society will have much less of it.



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